The industrial revolution brought about a radical change in freshwater economics. Once a primary energy source (via the water-wheel), freshwater now quenches the voracious thirst of coolants, hydraulics, fracking and other technologies dominant in energy generation. Hydroelectric is the one major energy technology for which water remains the primary source.

Global freshwater use is divided between agriculture (69%), households and offices (12%) and industry (19%). The energy dependence of each of these sectors of the modern economy has therefore added great complexity to the management of water as a scarce resource.

For example, tackling energy insecurity by planting biofuel crops displaces food production and may require extra irrigation. Conversely, water scarcity can be relieved by desalinisation on an industrial scale but this technology is energy intensive. Even the basic task of moving water to where it is needed requires fuel for pumping.

The interdependence between these building blocks of modern civilization is often described as the water energy food nexus. Water is acknowledged to be pivotal in the nexus, in that any scarcity is likely to impose upward pressure on food and energy prices. This is a scenario that strikes fear into political leaders struggling to deliver economic prosperity. A World Bank report published in 2016 warns that water scarce countries could see their growth rates decline by as much as 6% of GDP by 2050.

Too many governments lack the coordination necessary to anticipate how policies targeting the supply of one element of the water energy food nexus will almost certainly have consequences for the other two. For example, almost half of India’s thermal power capacity is located in regions of water scarcity, suffering regular disruption to energy supplies.

Another example relates to new fossil fuel technologies such as gas fracking and oil sands. Government enthusiasm has tended to overlook the intrusion and demands on the water cycle. Fears of depletion and pollution of local water sources has played a part in the widespread public unease about these technologies.


more Water Scarcity briefings (updated April 2018)
Water Cycle
Causes of Water Scarcity
Climate Change and Water Scarcity
Solutions to Water Scarcity
Sustainable Development Goal for Water
Access to Safe Water
Water Wars
Source material and useful links